The Few and the Many: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 3

The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender.

 Chapter 3

How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music

By way of expanding the uses of his theory, and of providing more varied examples, Lewis begins noting how the “many” tend to approach visual arts and music in a way that prevents them from being really experienced.

His observation on art boils down to this: that most people like pictures and paintings primarily for the subject or scene rather than for the artistic expression. If the painting is of something they like – a pastoral scene, an energetic battle, an alluringly unclad woman, etc. – then they will like it better than a superior painting that is of a scene that does not inherently interest them – say, a still life, or a portrait like the Mona Lisa. So it is that Lewis himself, as a child, loved all the illustrations of Beatrix Potter because he loved anthropomorphised animals, but made no distinction between her good illustrations and her hasty, ill-drawn ones. Used this way, art is reduced to the value of a toy or a religious icon.

While you retain this attitude you treat the picture—or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture—as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you.

His observation on music is similar: the many invariably go to music which either provokes a social response (dancing, humming, clapping) by an infectious rhythm or melody, or which incites strong emotional responses and daydreams. Or all of these, of course. Lewis believes that nearly all of us start in the many with regards to music, and only begin to appreciate it with time and some musical education. We listen to most music just for the tune or rhythm, usually failing to notice and appreciate all the wonderful choices in arrangement and performance. And the more we focus on the images and emotions that a song conjures up for us, the less we notice the actual music itself.

As regards one instrument (the bagpipes) I am still in this condition. I can’t tell one piece from another, nor a good piper from a bad. It is all just ‘pipes’, all equally intoxicating, heartrending, orgiastic.

Now, as Lewis has warned before, these popular uses of pictures and music are not inherently bad or wrong. Keats looked at the black figures on a piece of ancient pottery and was inspired to write “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and that was very good. “But admirable in its own way; not admirable as an appreciation of ceramic art” (18), if that was his only reaction to it. And to deny the “organic,” emotional responses to music would be not just foolish, but utterly insane!

To sing and dance round a fiddler at a fair (the organic and social response) is obviously a right-minded thing to do. To have ‘the salt tear harped out of your eye’ is not foolish or shameful. And neither response is peculiar to the unmusical. The conoscenti too can be caught humming or whistling…But they don’t hum or whistle while the music is going on; only in reminiscence, as we quote favourite lines of verse to ourselves. [emphasis mine]

I interject quickly to say that I don’t think Lewis is denying that musical people will ever hum and whistle a tune while listening to the song, but rather that they are always sure to take time to listen to songs with their full attention, in order to pick out all its notes and unique details. Their enjoyment becomes “impregnated with intelligence.” We could even say that it is informed enjoyment, and “far more sensuous than the popular use; more tied to the ear” (24).

With art and music, as with books, we should open ourselves fully to what the artist is doing with his particular art. We must try to rid ourselves of preconceptions and prejudices—not of all thought or opinions, certainly, but of our own demands for what we want the piece of art to be.

We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus…by emptying out or own [emotions and opinions regarding the mythological characters of these Roman deities]. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) (19)

I studied classics at university, and I can tell you that I really don't like Mars or Venus, or their Greek counterparts Ares and Aphrodite. But this painting is beautiful.

But the good spectator–like the good reader–is not passive. He receives a work of art for what it is, in order to learn what its own terms are, so that he may see more accurately what it is. Once these terms are understood, he may decide that they are not worth his full employment.

So we draw a distinction between good and bad approaches to art. Good art can possibly be used for unworthy purposes, but it encourages a good, intelligent approach. On the other hand, “a bad picture cannot be enjoyed with that full and disciplined ‘reception’ which the few give to a good one.” Try gazing for a long period at a painting by da Vinci or Jacques Louis David; you will be drawn into it, marveling over little details, a line here, the colors there, the shape and composition of the whole. But try the same experiment with a poor painting or drawing, and you will find there is no real substance to concentrate on. You will likely even find that the more concentration you give it, the worse the picture appears, as all its artistic faults become apparent!

That is the heart of Lewis’ argument, and one of the most important passages in the book. Another easy example for us to consider is film. Most people go to the movies just so they can turn their brains off and have various emotions pricked and tickled while they watch attractive people doing things they find attractive. They actively resist movies that try to demand more of them as viewers, or that have elements that don’t conform to what they know they like. But if I had never sat down to watch Citizen Kane to humor my dad’s interest, I never would have discovered what a fantastically entertaining movie that is, in addition to it being a fantastically intelligent and insightful one. Had I never agreed, however reluctantly, as a kid, to watch a boring-sounding movie about a girl and some geese, I never would have experienced the beauty of Fly Away Home.

But back to books. I admit that I very rarely read a book that is not fantasy or history-related. Other books simply interest me less. I know my comfort zone (and pretend it’s some kind of expertise), “what I like.” And, ultimately, this is detrimental. Now, because I have known of this danger for years, I do try to mitigate its effects. Every so often I step aside to read a nonfiction book, maybe even one that has nothing to do with writing or history. And while I think all my literature classes from fifth grade through university could have used more great fantasy literature, I am also grateful that they forced me to read novels I never otherwise would have considered: To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime & Punishment, even The Scarlet Letter. Even the books I disliked gave me experiences I could not have had otherwise, and thus played some role in enriching me.

I leave you now with a good piece of music to Listen to and consider in enjoyment.

Can you think of a painting or piece of music which, by paying long and considerable attention to it purely for its own sake, you were able to enjoy it more fully?


  1. I am not sure if this is exactly what you are looking for as an answer to your final sentence/question, but here goes. I have never been much of a fan of opera (an understatement, to be sure!). About 5 years ago, my daughter was asked to be a part of a small ballet ensemble that was to dance in a scene of “Hansel and Gretel” with the “Opera Theater Of The Rockies.” As a result of that rehearsal process, and the performances, I came to appreciate and then finally enjoy opera. Had my daughter not been part of an opera, I doubt I ever would have given opera the “time of day.” I was “forced” to sit (and in a sense study) opera while watching the rehearsal process.

    I am not sure that I became more intelligent as a result, but I know that my enjoyment of opera in particular, and music as a whole, was certainly enhanced.

    Thoughtful post. Thank you.

    1. That’s a fine example. I have a hard time sitting through operas also, but I do love the music independently. I also love operettas, which are like operas but more accessible, funnier, and often cleverer. Gilbert & Sullivan rock! Have you seen any performance of one of their works?

  2. “While you retain this attitude you treat the picture—or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture—as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you.” …I definitely need to read this book as soon as I find a copy. I am an art-major with an emphasis in art history, and this laid me flat. I had never thought in these terms, but it’s true! I’ve done (and do) both without ever thinking about the difference in the process or what it means!

    “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender.” Which is sometimes very, very hard to do. I am glad you make a point of saying that this does not mean ridding oneself completely of thoughts and opinions, though.

    My contribution must be The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte:

    The subject of this painting holds no interest to me, yet when I came into the gallery where it was hanging, my knees nearly buckled. I do not know how long I stood in front of it, but I went back to it twice. If you ever get a chance to see it in person, do so. As for what it did to/for me, all I know for sure is that it awed me. I have been face-to canvass (or board) with a fair number of masterworks at this point in my life, and I have been awed by many of them, but this piece stands out even among such company as Van Gogh, Vermeer, Reubens, Leonardo da Vinci, and Manet. The Floor Scrappers stopped me in my tracks and said “Look” and I looked.

    1. That’s an amazing painting — I’d never seen it before. I see what you mean, though. The way the light plays across the backs of the scrapers, the shadows on the floor, the whole atmosphere is enthralling. It is a living picture. Thanks for sharing.

      I highly recommend the book, obviously. You’d get as much or more out of than I. His basic thesis is very simple, and I’ve already stated it above. The rest of the book is him working out all the kinks and looking at it from different perspectives, and trying to get rid of any snobbishness or false assumptions it might lead to.

  3. CS Lewis does have interesting thoughts! The first thing that came to my mind was books, not paintings or music (though i do have a greater appreciation of classical music after taking piano lessons). In English classes, they made us read ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which I hated and couldn’t see the point of. Once I gave it a little time, and re-read it, I realized it’s quite a good book after all. Maybe not comfortable to me, but still a good book.
    Also, I probably never would’ve read anything of Keats if it weren’t for English class, and his poetry is amazingly beautiful.

    1. That’s a good point — I should give The Great Gatsby another chance, too. I admired some of the writing in high school, but disliked the characters and story. I still own it, so sometime I’ll reread it. And I do need to read more poetry (mostly of the older kind. 20th century poetry doesn’t appeal to me very much, unless it’s Robert Frost or Tolkien).

      1. Yes, I found the characters very dis-likeable, but the main point was something I could agree with. Poetry is a tough thing for me to get into, because it takes far more effort and usually I have no clue what they’re getting at.

  4. All those years playing in orchestra did for me what Lewis means when he talks about learning to appreciate music for itself. In rehearsals, you get to hear passages played over and over, sometimes with only one or two sections of the orchestra playing. It’s an absolutely fabulous experience, because when parts of a symphony get singled out, you notice things that you might not have otherwise, and you get to hear how all the parts of the symphony combine and compliment each other. I’ve also found that the process of rehearsing has helped me to appreciate some of the less readily accessible composers, like Ravel or Shostakovich. By the end of semester, I’m really enjoying the piece, but when I ask my mom after the concert, “Wasn’t that Shostakovich smashing?” she won’t have enjoyed it as much, just because she only got one opportunity to hear it. I really miss orchestra!

    David, you make me feel slightly better about the fact that I, too, tend only to read sci-fi and fantasy in my free time. (Though it has come to my attention that I REALLY need to read Brothers Karamazov.) But anyway, half the reason I want to continue in academics is that I know I want to read the classics, but I’m also really lazy and I need reasons to be made to read them.

    Funny you should mention Gatsby. I first read it and really liked it in college. I revisited my paper and reworked it for my university application last year, and I didn’t like it nearly so much this second time. I still appreciated the brilliance of Fitzgerald’s writing, but I was more frustrated by the themes than before. It was an interesting experience. I guess I’ll have to read it again sometime, and see what I think then.

    1. Good point — being in band did give me more opportunities to hear all the parts of the symphony independently. Especially in percussion, as I was, it was neat to be able to focus on the bass beats or the bells, and see how separately the parts didn’t sound like much, but when fitted properly into the background of the whole piece they really made the music come alive.

      Brothers Karamazov is also on my reading list! Don’t know when I’ll get to it, but a friend of mine from church (also a huge sci-fi fan) recommended it. Also, I’m very glad to make you feel slightly better about yourself. +)

      Haha, it’s true: sometimes you need three times at least to really understand a book. It’s a fairly short book, so maybe I could reread Gatsby somewhat sooner rather than later.

      1. As silly as this sounds, Rock Band/Guitar Hero do the same kind of thing for me when it comes to rock music. Because, when you play the lead guitar or the bass, the game amplifies your part a bit, and you can more easily hear how it fits into the whole. I have extra appreciation for the bass parts of Beatles tunes because of that game.

        You didn’t get to play timpani, did you? I think those big copper kettle drums are so awesome. And the fact that they have actual pitch makes them even cooler. They are used to particularly nice effect in Dvorak.

        1. Mostly I was bass drum for the marching band, but I did play timpani once or twice for concert band. They are really awesome, but harder to play than you’d think. A good timpanist will constantly be tuning and re-tuning his drums during a performance. You might need a single drum to be one pitch at the beginning, another pitch at the end, and a third at the end, and you’re only time to tune are sections where you have a few measures off. I was never that good, but even in high school one or two of the percussionists could do it.

          1. I wondered if that was the case with timpani, that they would need to change the pitch during a piece. I imagined it would be necessary, because the drums always are on pitch with the rest of the orchestra. Yeah, I bet they are tricky. I could always hear them pretty well, because the percussion is right behind the violins.

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